(A Lament for Liederkranz and the Pawhuska Town Square)

By J. Quinn Brisben

Last December the New York Times described the anti-WTO protesters in Seattle as "flat-earth advocates." It’s true that many of the progressives there wanted no part of "progress" if it meant surrender to the rules of a few gigantic and undemocratically controlled financial institutions whose vision of the future is the Orwellian one of "a boot stamping on a human face—forever." The protesters were in favor of sea turtles, Roquefort cheese, a plain cup of coffee at the local greasy spoon, and effective labor unions controlled by their members. It should not have surprised the WTO and even many of the demonstrators that the various protesting groups got along so well with each other. 

Socialists have always had a clearer notion of the direction of capitalist development than the capitalists themselves. Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto: "The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society...Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all previous ones." Marx and Engels would have understood why followers of Pat Buchanan were among the Seattle protesters: "The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world-market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed... In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property."

Little Big Men

These great words written in 1848 seem remarkably prescient. There is something mindless about the protean greed of the system which destroys jobs and cultures, and has developed finally the ability to destroy the planet itself. In Thomas Berger's great novel, Little Big Man, the Cheyenne chief Old Lodge Skins says of those destroying his way of life "They do not seem to know where the center of the earth is." Sometimes they did not even have a clear notion of where the bottom line is. Preserving the planet and many pleasant ways of life and achievements thus becomes a conservative as well as a radical revolutionary task and develops the new set of alliances seen in Seattle. The overthrow of the system by the workers will obviously take a far different form than the Manifesto envisioned, but the first step is still to convince workers everywhere in the world that the great changes which benefit their employers are not benefiting them and that they should unite to make sure that globalization occurs on their own terms, not those of the bosses. Naturally, this is heresy according to the WTO, IMF, NAFTA, GATT, World Bank, and the politicians and publicists who propagandize for these institutions. The globalist propaganda, however, does not seem to convince. A Pew Research Center survey in April, 1999, found 52% of Americans of the opinion that globalization would hurt them; those with annual incomes of $50,000 or less opposed it by a margin of 58%. Seattle protesters report a friendly reaction from the vast majority of the public despite the media emphasis on a few violent incidents. Some of the protesters like the French dairy farmer who champions his good Roquefort cheese against the McDonaldization of the world have become popular heroes. 

Pungent Cultures

I am a cheese lover, so that farmer is my hero, too. He brings to mind a recent destruction of a cultural treasure by a section of emerging globalism that one might label Big Cheese. Roquefort is great, but I share with Pat Buchanan a certain atavistic patriotism that made me especially fond of Liederkranz, the only really great cheese ever developed in this country. Bacteria do few favors for the human race, but the cultures which got into the fermentation at a small Wisconsin dairy produced a soft, surface-ripening cheese notable for its pungent taste and aroma. Some people would not sit near me when I ate it, but I loved it and so did many others with a discriminating palate. Then Liederkranz was bought up by Kraft, which in turn was swallowed up by General Foods, which became part of the diversification sought by the poison peddlers at Philip Morris. Somewhere along the line, some bean counter decided that the Liederkranz market was too small for major players to bother with, the Liederkranz operation was closed and the precious bacterial culture lost. I have capitalized the word Liederkranz because Philip Morris still owns the copyright, but corporate greed has irrevocably destroyed this small addition to the good life. Philip Morris will be sponsoring the upcoming debates between the bought and paid for presidential candidates, so we cannot expect this small issue to be mentioned there or even the more important issue of why globalism must be challenged in the streets because it cannot be challenged in the media. The channels over which sound and images are electronically transmitted were once regarded as public property and are still so regarded in many parts of the world, but, in this country, they have been enclosed and become the property of only the very rich. This is a development which socialists of the last two centuries would have understood, for they were keen students of earlier enclosure movements. European capitalism developed from feudalism. Part of this development, especially in the British Isles, was the enclosure of common lands.

Peasants who had been allowed to run livestock or cultivate small fields found that feudal landlords becoming capitalists enclosed the land to cut timber or raise sheep. This resulted not only in armed peasant revolts but in one of the greatest pieces of proto-socialist propaganda ever written, Thomas More's 1516 novel, Utopia, whose protagonist asserts "...you'll never get a fair distribution of goods, or a satisfactory organization of human life, until you abolish private property altogether."

Closing Time

More was later beheaded for treason at the order of Henry VIII for representing a coalition of progressives and traditionalists opposed to the new land grab. Protests died down, and enclosures proceeded. Increased profitability of the wool industry caused another wave of enclosures in the British Isles in the 18th and early 19th centuries. This occasioned a massive immigration of victims to the American frontier and inspired Oliver Goldsmith's great poem The Deserted Village which contains the verse:  "Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, Where wealth accumulates and men decay."

The enclosure movement continued, and the dispossessed of Europe went on to dispossess Native Americans and enslave Africans. In the late 19th century farmers in this country on the edge of dispossession formed the core of the populist movement, and many of them later became socialists.

In Mexico the first great social revolution of the 20th century took place when peasants led by Emiliano Zapata protested the expropriation of their traditional common holdings by capitalists who called themselves "cientificos." These "scientific" new liberals wanted to create large plantations tied into a global cash market. The Zapatistas of Chiapas today are fighting the same battle.  Even in this country, still the leading edge of capitalist development, few of us are sufficiently aware that a new enclosure of public space has made protest more difficult and diminished the quality of life. Protests that I helped make 35 and 40 years ago are no longer possible. In 1960 I took part in a protest organized by the Congress On Racial Equality (CORE) in support of sit-ins at Southern lunch counters. We simply paraded with our signs on the sidewalk in front of Woolworths on State Street in Chicago, a public space. Today the retail successors of Woolworths are mostly in malls whose interior spaces and parking lots are privately owned and unavailable to those who wish to inform the public of injustice. In 1965, to show support for Selma marchers, I took part in a CORE protest against Alabama state troopers, one of whom was guarding his state's exhibit at the boat show at Chicago's McCormick Place. We could not march on the sidewalk in front of the hall, for that space had already been enclosed, but we could march on the bridge over the Outer Drive. Today that bridge has been enclosed as private property. 

Community Gone Global

A few years ago I learned that the corporate greed of Wal-Mart had destroyed one of the most pleasant public spaces of my childhood, the town square of Pawhuska, Oklahoma. This was the social center of the Osage Nation, especially on the traditional market day of Saturday. My family visited it occasionally. The elders of the nation would sit on benches telling stories of the old days and making inoffensive jokes about the outlandish customs of non-tribal persons. Possibly they joked about my fondness for smelly cheese like Liederkranz. I know I made jokes about the puppy dogs which they considered a gourmet delicacy, but nobody got angry about cultural differences. Today that town square is dead. Wal-Mart built a big store on the outskirts of town, and most of the merchants on the square went out of business. The huge private parking lot of the Wal-Mart was ugly and unsuitable for public gatherings. The store was outside the town and did not pay property taxes for local schools and police. Employees, some of them former independent merchants, got minimal wages, long hours, and lots of company spies to see that they did not try to form unions. In the 1930s FDR's wife Eleanor and his secretary of labor Frances Perkins could at least speak from the steps of the post office in company-owned mining towns about the rights of labor to organize. Wal-Mart workers can expect no such aid these days from Hillary Clinton, a former Wal-Mart board member, and labor secretary Alexis Herman, whose consulting firm helped employers keep unions under control. Even the large selection of goods and low prices provided by a volume merchandiser did not last. Wal-Mart created an even larger store 30 miles away in Bartlesville and closed the Pawhuska store. Two or three gallons of gas is a considerable expense to most Osages, who are not rich, and outweigh any possible Wal-Mart savings. Boarded up downtowns and the loss of a sense of community are an inevitable Wal-Mart legacy. Globalization is certain to come eventually if it is of genuine benefit to the whole human race. The present capitalist schemes are not to our benefit and should be opposed.

Copyright © 1999, The Socialist Party USA. All Rights Reserved. This article originally appeared in The Socialist, Spring 1999